Coastal’s giant leap to Sun Belt a long time in the making

col-tbuzz-2It was exactly 20 years ago this month that I moved to Myrtle Beach to cover Coastal Carolina University athletics for the local daily newspaper. I remember my first trip to campus like it was, well, about 20 years ago. That seems about right, especially in light of the school’s impending announcement that it is joining the Sun Belt Conference. They grow up so fast.

My predecessor on the Coastal beat took me for a quick tour of the athletic facilities. The baseball stadium looked like a high school field. The basketball “arena” looked like a middle school gym. And there was no football stadium because there was no football program. The soccer team played in The Graveyard, the site where the football stadium currently rests, although the field used to run east-west instead of north-south.

Those were some dark days in Coastal athletics, perhaps the darkest. The once-proud men’s basketball program was still reeling from the NCAA sanctions it was slapped with on the heels of two trips to the Big Dance. Gary Gilmore had just arrived to revive his alma mater’s baseball program that had fallen on hard times. The women’s basketball program had never had a winning season. I remember people questioning whether Coastal should remained at Division II status.

For 13 years I watched a lot of good, hard-working people hammer away at the school’s athletics issues. Coaches, administrators and athletes shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears season after season to propel Coastal to where it is today. There’s no way to mention them all, but there were a few highlight moments that stand out as milestones for Coastal’s long climb to the relative big-time. Allow me to take you on a short stroll down memory and victory lanes.

Longtime coaches like Gilmore, men’s soccer skipper Shaun Docking, men’s tennis coach Chris Powers and others deserve credit for a lot of the heavy lifting, building winning programs on a shoestring budget during some tough times. The decision to add football stands out as the tipping point for Coastal athletics, although the upstart costs put the other programs in a pinch. But the community support and national attention that came along with the addition of football has paid off handsomely.

Then there’s perhaps the single biggest move that launched Coastal into the relative stratosphere – and I’ll have to eat a bit of crow on this one – CCU President David DeCenzo’s decision to fire beloved folk hero David Bennett and replace him with long-shot TD Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia. Talk about playing a hot stock tip, Moglia has proven to be an asset to the school far beyond the sidelines. And the energy and can-do attitude he brought to Coastal have been contagious.

Oh, and did I forget the hiring of legendary college basketball coach Cliff Ellis, who has carried Coastal back to the Big Dance for the first time since 1993? Or current AD and former Voice of the Chanticleers Matt Hogue, who worked his way to the top while CCU’s sports teams were doing the same. Or the late Bob Brooks, who donated a nice chunk of his Hooters fortune so the Chants could have a football stadium? And then there are people like former AD George F. “Buddy” Sasser, former softball coach Jess Dannelly, and former sports information director Wayne White, who continued to rally support for the school long after they stopped collecting a paycheck. I knew I was going to leave some important people out.

But the proof is in the fruits of their labor, and it’s evident in the dramatically different scene in the sports facilities two decades later. Kimbel Gym (nee Arena) is now the state-of-the-art HTC Center. The baseball and softball diamonds in the rough are now the new TD Park, an incredible facilities that now puts both programs in the mix for hosting NCAA Regionals. And now Brooks Stadium is due for a major upgrade to at least 20,000 seats now that the Chants will be making the giant leap to the FBS level in 2017.

The step up to the Sun Belt will not be an inexpensive one, but there’s no question that Coastal has more momentum to seize the opportunity now than at any other time in its athletics history. Coastal has flirted with the idea of joining the Colonial Athletic Association or the Southern Conference, but those are baby steps or lateral moves to the inevitable climb up the college sports ladder. There will always be naysayers, as there were when Coastal first floated the idea of adding football, and when the new arena kept getting sidetracked. But the old adage about striking when the iron is hot certainly applies when it comes to this step up in class.

The only thing more exciting than looking back at how far the Chants have come in the past 20 years is looking forward to how far and high they will fly in the future.

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